We're at the business end of the Champions League. Europe's premier club competition returns this week, with four enticing quarterfinal matchups on tap. Below, we dissect each fixture and predict the outcome.
A pair of European aristocrats renew hostilities in arguably the most difficult quarterfinal clash to interpret. Even in the context of the strangest football season in recent memory, Real Madrid and Liverpool have both endured particularly peculiar campaigns.
The Spanish giants, 13-time winners of the Champions League, have been largely unremarkable all year and continue to rely almost exclusively on the outstanding Karim Benzema for goals. And yet, here they are, unbeaten in all competitions since Jan. 30 and alive on the continental and domestic fronts. Liverpool, meanwhile, have been forced into more lineup changes and defensive combinations than anyone could have predicted, but they appear to slowly be recovering from a horrid stretch in which everything that could go wrong did. Just in time, too.
Injuries have been the predominant theme of the Reds' season, but it's an ailment on the Real Madrid side that could have the largest impact on this encounter. Madrid captain Sergio Ramos will miss both legs of the tie with a calf issue. The absence of the veteran defender could see left-back Ferland Mendy again slot into a three-man backline, robbing Madrid of a crucial outlet down the left side. It's not ideal under any circumstances, and it's especially problematic when Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah are the opposite numbers on the flank.
A month ago, Real Madrid would have likely been tipped to dispatch a Liverpool side in disarray. But with Fabinho back in his customary midfield role and Diogo Jota flying high and offering another dangerous attacking threat, the Reds now appear to have the edge.
Prediction: Liverpool advance
This has to be the season, right?
Manchester City's struggles in Europe under Pep Guardiola have been well-documented; since the celebrated tactician arrived at the club, City haven't gone beyond the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League. Last year's defeat to Lyon was as painful as it was unexpected, and it rehashed discussions over the manager's propensity to tinker too much with his lineup and tactics in key moments. Making adjustments based on your opponent is important and necessary. But Guardiola, undeniably a brilliant football mind, can sometimes push things too far.
Another European failure this season would surely be the most stunning of the lot. City are steamrolling everything in their way right now: They've won 26 of their last 27 games in all competitions, boast the best expected goal difference of any team in the Champions League by a country mile, and have several players capable of the sublime at any time. It's a bit unfair, really.
If all that wasn't enough, they're catching Borussia Dortmund at the ideal time. The German outfit enters this week's first leg on the back of a debilitating Bundesliga defeat, one that left their top-four hopes in tatters and saw chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke lambaste the players' attitude and question their willpower. The internal strife has led to suggestions that star striker Erling Haaland is on his way out, with none other than Manchester City cited as front-runners for his coveted signature. Haaland, who leads the Champions League with 10 goals this season, is certainly capable of winning any match on his own, but this feels like a challenge too large for even him to overcome.
Prediction: Manchester City advance
A team needs every edge it can find to win a major tournament, and sympathy for Bayern Munich will be in short supply after PSG also failed to make it through the recent international break unscathed. While Lewandowski damaged knee ligaments playing for Poland, the French club lost influential Italian pair Marco Verratti and Alessandro Florenzi after both tested positive for COVID-19. Each side will thus be forced into some intriguing changes that will go a long way in determining who emerges from the tie.
Reigning champions Bayern still have the more balanced squad overall, particularly in midfield. But without Lewandowski, PSG's top-end talent is more impressive, especially with Neymar back in the mix to aid Kylian Mbappe. PSG have been trending toward becoming a more cohesive unit - that's what helped them reach the final last season - but given their own key absences at the moment, this is when the onus is on the standout names to step up and carry the team over the hump, balance be damned.
Paris Saint-Germain have invested heavily in star power over the years, both on the pitch and the touchline. With rumors continuing to fly about Mbappe's future, the window to capitalize on that approach and win the only title the PSG brass truly desires could be closing. Against a Bayern side that's missing its best player and shown signs of defensive vulnerability all season, this is a great opportunity to make a big statement.
Prediction: PSG advance
How much stock should we put in Chelsea's stinker of a performance against West Bromwich Albion this past weekend?
If their shocking 5-2 home defeat to the relegation-threatened Baggies was indicative of a larger issue, the Blues are in trouble. If it was just a blip, they should still feel confident about reaching the Champions League semifinals. All the evidence since Thomas Tuchel took over suggests the latter; Chelsea were unbeaten in 14 games under the German before Saturday's meltdown. Timing notwithstanding, one can forgive a team for laying the occasional egg.
Chelsea still have kinks to iron out, but they match up favorably with Porto, the surprise quarterfinalists looking to reach the semifinals for the first time since winning the Champions League in 2004.
After an upset win over Juventus in the previous round, the stout Portuguese side will likely find it far more difficult to control the tempo against Chelsea. Juve's lack of a dynamic midfielder who can break pressure and play between the lines allowed Porto to get set in its defensive shape without having to worry about being pulled out of position. Chelsea, however, can create havoc in exactly those areas through standout performer Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, and Hakim Ziyech. Deeper in midfield, Mateo Kovacic's ability to dribble out of tight spaces will be vital.
Pepe, so imperious against Juventus largely because he could comfortably set up shop in his own penalty area and organize his defensive troops, should find things more chaotic against Chelsea. Sergio Oliveira's absence also looms large for Wednesday's first leg. The Portuguese international, suspended due to yellow card accumulation, dominated the middle of the pitch in the round of 16.
Prediction: Chelsea advance